The holidays are coming and the geese are getting fat. It's time to pull some party ideas from an old man's hat. I would say that everyone loves a holiday party, but that's just not true; many of them suck. Here are a few tips that should help ensure that yours is of the non-sucky variety.
Don't Mix to Order
Every time I talk about cocktail parties, I say the same thing. I'll say it here again, but this time more concisely. Don't spend your party time mixing drinks to order for your guests. Instead, batch up a couple of cocktails ahead of time or, better yet, make a punch. The punch can go into a large bowl with a giant block of ice in the middle, or it can go into a pitcher to be served over rocks in a glass. Up to you.
Stock Up on Ice
You'll want to have a couple of different types of ice around, so plan ahead. First, make cubes for serving in individual drinks. Use bottled water if you don't like the way your tapwater tastes. Make sure there's nothing stinky in your freezer that could contribute off odors to your ice, and then start making cubes days in advance. Store them in heavy zip-top freezer bags.
Then, you'll want bags of ice from the supermarket or gas station. Ideally, you won't serve this ice in drinks: you'll use it to chill beer, wine, and possibly juice, iced tea, or soft drinks for teetotalers. Buy it just before the party starts, get more than you think you'll need, and, if you run out of freezer space, store some in the bathtub until you need it. (If that idea grosses you out, buy a metal tub or a large cooler and store the ice in there, in an out-of-the-way location that won't annoy your guests.)
If you're serving punch in a punch bowl, don't forget to make an ice block in advance. The easiest method is to freeze your ice in a Tupperware container, though you can also get fancy with a jello mold or bundt pan if you have a punch bowl that will be big enough to hold the finished ice.
Set Up Your Bar
You don't have to serve each drink to every guest who comes in your door, but you shouldn't leave them rummaging in your fridge and cupboards, either. Make it easy for partygoers to help themselves.
Set out some glasses: one type of wine glass will suffice for all wines; and bucket or rocks glasses will work for premixed cocktails or punch, especially if you're serving them on ice.
Fill a large bowl or bucket with grocery-store ice, and use it to chill beer, white wine, and any nonalcoholic beverages.
Set out your red wine, a pitcher of batched cocktails, another pitcher of ice water, and a bucket of nice, fresh ice cubes from your freezer. Be sure to check the ice bucket every so often to make sure the cubes haven't all melted.
Don't forget to include a wine key and a bottle opener.
Balance Your Flavors
If you'll be serving snacks as well as drinks, it can be fun to aim for flavors that work well together. There's no need to go crazy, but there are some combinations that are an easy match.
Gin cocktails are great with rich savories, such as patés, meatballs, and single-serving meat pies. The juniper and other herbal flavors in the gin complement rich food, while cutting through that richness and making it more palatable. Serving a light seafood salad in lettuce cups? You might want your signature cocktail to be bright and citrusy, not a super-boozy bourbon drink. But if you're making pork belly buns or bacon-wrapped dates, that bourbon cocktail may be just the ticket.
If there's going to be a lot of Champagne at your party, treat your guests to a classic food pairing or two. Put out a big wedge of Parmigiano-Reggiano alongside some salty prosciutto. Make gougeres (cheese puffs) ahead and freeze them, then warm 'em up in the oven when the party starts. Place slices of tender lox or smoked trout salad on potato chips. Or go with Champagne's best friend: pretty much any fried food.
If You're a Guest ...
Bring something. Scotch is usually welcome. A favorite bottle of wine never hurts. Even better: high-quality vermouth or amaro. If you want to bring food, ask a few days ahead—not at the last minute when your host is busy prepping! Perhaps you can contribute a wedge or two to the cheese plate, or maybe the most helpful thing would be an extra bag of ice.